The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments this week between state and local officials as to whether or not the city of Wichita should be allowed to implement an ordinance passed in 2014 that decriminalizes marijuana possession.
In April of last year, 54 percent of the voting population in the state’s largest municipality approved a ballot measure that took the heat off first time pot offenders by making minor possession a civil infraction rather than a criminal offense. Essentially, the majority of Wichita agreed that a $50 fine was a sufficient enough punishment for anyone caught holding a small bag of weed and that it was no longer necessary to put these people in jail.
However, the passing of this ordinance did not set well with Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who argued that Wichita could not move forward with the ordinance because it directly conflicts with state and federal law.
It is this battle between the city’s right to approve rules conducive to maintaining civil society and a state hammer swinging in disapproval that has brought the state’s highest court in to mediate this issue to a decision.
Some questioned the validity of the initiative before it was ever put before voters, but the primary concern is that the ordinance, which treats pot possession the same as a traffic ticket, does not legally supersede the rules of the state, which can demand thousands of dollars in fines and up to a year in prison for the same offense.
“The city can’t permit what the state forbids,” Assistant Attorney General Jeff Chaney told the court.
Justice Caleb Stegall refused this portion of Chaney’s argument because he believes the only thing the city has done is given a judge the right to fine someone $50 for pot possession. And since doing this would in no way conflict with any mandatory minimum sentences outlined by the state, Stegall asked, “What has the city permitted?”
Interestingly, when Wichita city attorney Sharon Dickgrafe explained that city ordinances were not required to mimic state law, Justice Eric Rosen compared the decriminalizing of marijuana with lessening the penalties for sex crimes. He argued that if the city could make up its own rules in regard to marijuana laws then it could do the same for all crimes, including rape.
Dickgrafe shot down the justice’s ridiculous rationalization by stating that the city could not decriminalize rape because it is a felony offense.
Other issues were raised during the hearing, including some pertaining to jurisdiction. There is apparently some confusion involving exactly what role the ordinance would play depending on whether the pot offender was busted by Wichita police or the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s office.
Ultimately, the state of Kansas simply wants the Supreme Court to rule against the city on the basis that the decriminalization ordinance conflicts with state law. A ruling of this nature would prevent Wichita and other local municipalities from putting future decriminalization measures into place.
There is a possibility, however, that the court could rule against the measure based merely on a procedural technicality. If this happens, the organizers responsible with devising the ballot measure say they plan to start from scratch and get a similar initiative on the ballot in the next election.
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